2018 MIDTERM ELECTION

Time: D H M S

UPDATED: Minnesota: Phone/website weirdness, but at least 3,000 enrolled on Day 1

Remember three years ago when HealthCare.Gov launched with all sorts of horrible technical problems, and many people were speculating that at least some of the tech issues may have been the result of deliberate, malicious attacks (hacking, DDoS attacks, etc) by those opposed to either President Obama, the ACA or both?

Well, that turned out to be mostly hooey; while I'm sure there were some attempts at messing with the system, the technical problems were for the most part good old fashioned unintentional screw-ups by either the vendors, the HHS management or a combination of both. The Obama administration quickly brought in the Code Red crash team to fix the problems, and for the most part the federal exchange started working pretty well. Further improvements the past few years have completely transformed it into a pretty quick, easy, seamless experience for most people, to the point that it's now literally operating 100,000 times better than when the website first launched.

I remind you of all this because in Minnesota today, it looks an awful lot like some of those conspiracy theories may actually be for real this time:

The health insurance shopping season got off to a rough start Tuesday with complaints and technical difficulties at the MNsure website and a report that the MNsure call center was targeted by robocallers tying up phone lines.

The website at the state's health insurance exchange opened for business at 6 a.m., and MNsure officials said roughly 1,200 signed up for coverage within the first two hours.

But website users started reported crashes starting around 11:30 a.m. By noon, state IT officials issued a statement saying the MNsure website and nearly 70 other state websites had been experiencing intermittent outages.

The MNsure website was back in service by 1 p.m., at which point a state IT official said all the government websites should be up again.

After the call center opened at 8 a.m., customers started complaining about waits that exceeded an hour in some cases. In comments to reporters Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton said the state's IT division had identified the culprit behind the robocalls, with wait times being improved as a result.

"It's deplorable that somebody or anybody is trying to disrupt this," Dayton said. "They've excluded whatever the source is."

...This year, troubles are surfacing on the open day of open enrollment likely because enrollment caps for most insurers in the market have created a strong incentives for shoppers to buy early.

...Marie Harmon, a MNsure spokeswoman, said that by 8 a.m. nearly 12,000 people had started applications, including about 10,300 people who were working on the website at the time.

When I visited MNSure.org just now, it loaded quickly, but instead of seeing the normal home page, it takes you directly to a bare-bones account login/creation page instead. I'm assuming this is temporary and that they'll change it back to the regular, more informative website interface as soon as they root out the remaining issues, but it's troubling, especially given the recent high-profile cyberattacks by Russian hackers on the DNC, Clinton campaign and other Democratic Party-related servers.

Don't get me wrong...I'm not claiming this is the work of the Russians; I have no idea who's behind it (the article simply says they'd "identified the culprit" and presumably stopped them). I'm just saying that blatant political cybercrimes are very much "in vogue" this election season, is all.

In addition, as noted in the article, in Minnesota the timing of this outage is even more troubling. As a unique workaround to tide the precarious individual market over this year, MN is instituting a special rule: They're placing enrollment caps on 4 of the 5 participating insurance carriers. That means that it's a first-come, first-serve situation; anyone who misses the cut-off numbers for HealthPartners, Medica or Ucare will only have BluePlus to choose from (which has no cap...they're the HMO branch of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota).

To be clear, BluePlus may be a perfectly fine (or even better) option for the vast majority of those enrolling, but with so many wanting to shop around right out of the gate, the timing of these problems couldn't be worse for MNsure.

On the brighter side, let's take a quick look at the 1,200 enrolled in the first 2 hours part:

Somehow I seriously doubt that's the case; I'm assuming that the "First Come First Serve Cap" rule has Minnesotans much more likely to enroll as early as possible than other states; as I noted this morning, I expect perhaps 87,000 people to enroll nationally by midnight tonight.

However, if the actual national number turns out to be much higher, I'll be more than happy to be proven wrong!

UPDATE: OK, good news on two fronts; according to StarTribune reporter Christopher Snowbeck's updated article:

Tuesday afternoon, state officials said they were still investigating what went wrong with the website, which they insisted was not a crash and did not indicate a security problem.

...Scott Peterson, the chief business technology officer with MN.IT, the division of state government for information technology services did not offer specifics about the alleged robocalling, but said IT officials noticed a suspicious surge of calls in the hours before the call center opened that continued into morning operations.

“We just see an inconsistent number of calls from certain numbers,” he said. “We’re just saying its consistent with robocalling.”

OK, so it sounds like the clogged phone lines appear to have been robocalls, but nothing beyond that...while the website issues don't appear to be suspicious (this apparently mpacted a bunch of state government sites, not just MNsure). So there's that.

More to the point:

MNsure officials said Tuesday the call center handled 13,732 calls by 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The tally appeared to smash previous records, since MNsure board materials suggest call volumes for people seeking Jan. 1 coverage never exceeded 5,000 during either of the last two open enrollment periods.

...“Thousands of Minnesotans have been on our site, creating accounts, actively enrolling,” she said, noting that more than 3,000 people had done so by midday. “We have not hit the caps yet, so people still have time. They still have choices.”

Sounds like they'll likely hit a first-day total of around 5,000 enrollments. Not bad at all!